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IP Contact Centers Reach Out

By: Richard "Zippy" Grigonis

The IP Contact Center, like VoIP itself, was considered a way to save money on placing and receiving massive numbers of phone calls. Today, however, the potent combination of IP, SIP (Session Initiation Protocol (News - Alert)), Unified Communications (UC) and Presence technology means that agents at remote locations can be added as needed, and that experts outside of the contact center – even mobile ones – can be scheduled for consultation to improve first-call resolution and/or sales. Moreover, the IP communications underpinning these centers can connect to back-office systems in a way that helps optimize an entire organization’s workflow and business processes.

Yes, today’s customers have never had it so good, thanks to the coming of IP and its related technologies to the contact center.

The clear benefits these centers deliver to both customers and their parent companies is such that vendors have been rushing to overhaul their product lines.

One company has always had innovative products and services for the contact center, enterprise IP telephony and enterprise messaging – Interactive Intelligence (News - Alert). They originally gained fame in the 1990s with advanced contact center automation applications - including Automatic Call Distribution (ACD), Interactive Voice Response (IVR), speech recognition, web collaboration, remote agent support, supervisory monitoring, predictive dialing, call recording, reporting and more. Today they’ve also added to their capabilities SIP-based enterprise IP telephony, unified communications and messaging, and customer self-service technologies capable of handling anything from a small company to giant distributed enterprises encompassing mobile workers. You can find their systems in such vertical markets as financial services, healthcare, legal, and higher education.

Interactive Intelligence’s Microsoft (News - Alert)-based IP communications suite, Vonexus Enterprise Interaction Center (Vonexus EIC) 3.0, pretty much embodies everything they’ve perfected over the years – ACD for queued calls, web chat and web callback capability, the Interaction Attendant automated attendant for intelligent call and email routing, and a pre-integrated Interaction Supervisor module for monitoring workgroup activities and EIC system performance. This software-centric platform also includes pre-integrated plug-ins for Microsoft Dynamics CRM and GP, along with support of Microsoft Windows Mobile 5 and 6 in its new Interaction Mobile Office application.

As with the most advanced of today’s systems, Vonexus (News - Alert) EIC’s ACD can quickly find the best match between agent and interaction, thus boosting the ability of workgroups and users to provide a consistently high level of customer service.

UC Comes to the Call Center

Historically, one of the greatest names in the call center business has been Aspect (News - Alert) Software. Years ago, their first ACD immediately established them as masters of call center technology.

Aspect’s Candace Berman, Director of Corporate Marketing, says, “We’re announcing in March 2008 a repositioning of our whole company. We are now going to market as a provider of unified communications for the contact center. Obviously, UC is a very important phenomenon that various people and organizations define differently. We’ve spent the last few months putting together the positioning of how Aspect fits into this, what we bring to the market that’s different and how we can help our customers and prospects through the process that we know and believe will impact everyone.”

Tom Chamberlain, Aspect’s Director of Business Process Marketing, says, “We saw that companies such as Cisco, Avaya (News - Alert), Microsoft and IBM were focusing primarily on enterprise communications – how employees within an organization communicate and collaborate. That’s all well and good and certainly that will bring some ROI [Return On Investment]. But we believe that there’s a perspective and opportunity that’s missing from such an approach – the consumer or customer with which people do business. The perspective of the consumer for the most part is missing from these strategies. We see that as an opportunity for us, as the contact center is the corporate ‘face’ to customers for most businesses. The ability to integrate contact centers into unified communications strategies is a huge opportunity for companies to bring in some return on investment.”

“As you know, we publish our Aspect Contact Center Satisfaction Index,” says Chamberlain, “which is an independent survey of consumer experience versus expectations of contact center interactions in North America. With the Index we’ve found that a customer is about four times as likely to do more business with a company in terms of products and services, if that customer finds their call experience to be satisfactory. We’ve also found that if you can increase your first-call resolution rates with customers, then that becomes a really a huge driver for customer satisfaction. Increasing first-call resolution can increase the top-line part of your business dramatically.”

“As we studied our market and our customers,” continues Chamberlain, “we realized that there’s a certain portion of calls handled by the contact center that requires some resources outside of the formal contact center domain, such as a warehouse, shipping area, or a finance department. We wanted more precise information, and our Corporate Marketing Manager, Aleassa Schambers, worked hard to gather data on this.”

“Yes,” says Schambers, “we tried to get some data that had already been collected from organization such as Datamonitor to see how often calls were going outside the boundaries of the traditional contact center. That data didn’t seem to exist anywhere, so we commissioned a survey from the same group that does the Aspect Index, Leo J. Shapiro and Associates, and they polled 50 agents and 50 contact center managers to see how many calls they were sending outside on a daily basis. This refers to putting a customer on hold and contacting someone in the enterprise or actually transferring that call out of the center. They found that 10.3 percent of the calls were leaving the contact center. Throughout the world, 95 million calls a day are being transferred. Agents and managers have said that calls transferred to the enterprise take an additional 2.5 minutes to resolve. In fact, it takes them roughly two calls to resolve a customer’s inquiry. That adds up to 238 million minutes a day spent sending calls out of the contact center. If you can reduce that time or take that down to first-call resolution, you would save significant amounts of time and money.”

Tom Chamberlain, adds, “So we believe that by extending the contact center into the enterprise via presence engines such as Microsoft OCS and IBM (News - Alert) Sametime, it really becomes a natural extension of what contact centers can do today. They can impact the business by reducing the amount of time it takes to get to these causal or knowledge workers and getting them engaged in the customer interaction. Also, in a managed way, you can ensure that the customer doesn’t have to call back again to get that same result, thus increasing first-call resolution. We call presence in the contact center ‘agent state’, a term we’ve used for 30 years.

“What makes this all unique is that we’re going to bring this customer perspective into the process and help bring a tangible benefit to a UC strategy,” says Chamberlain. “Also, as you extend the contact center into the enterprise – or really anything into the enterprise with UC – you’re going to have an issue as to how you manage the casual agents, who all have full-time, high-paying jobs. So how do you make sure that you know how many of these experts you need? And how do you work with the scheduled times so that they can be interrupted for a call? And how do you report on the use of these people so you don’t have certain numbers of people within the organization that are just getting overwhelmed and can’t do their regular job? The idea is to be able to utilize our workforce management capabilities to forecast, to schedule these casual agents and to report and analyze the activities going on in relationship to the contact center, so you can make progressive improvements in those business processes as well. These are unique capabilities that Aspect can bring to bear.”

“What this does for contact centers and UC strategies is a completely visibility of a transaction into the enterprise, which today occurs only on an ad hoc basis,” says Chamberlain. “Customer service reps know of somebody in another department personally or through experience and they IM them, interrupting them whenever they have the need to do so. Responses are therefore ad hoc as well. We can impose a schedule on that, making the whole process viable from a casual or knowledge worker perspective. From an agent perspective, we know that when you ask somebody to get involved with an interaction, if they’re scheduled they’re happy to help you as a part of that role.”

“So we’re announcing unified communications for the contact center on March 10, 2008,” says Chamberlain. “After all, that’s what we do. Our products and offerings remain focused on the contact center, extending it beyond its four brick walls, to bring in those casual agents as is necessary. In mid-summer 2008, you’ll start to see integrations with Microsoft OCS and IBM Sametime. Those are the presence engines that we’re starting with, and they will allow us to get out to touch the presence/availability of those expert agents. We’re also wrapping into that the ability to record skill-sets for those casual agents so that an agent sitting at the desktop can say, ‘I need someone who knows something about X or make a decision about Y, such as a credit line increase.’ So if you know the skill-sets of the casual agents as they relate to the call center, you can request not just the person who is available, but the person with the skill-set or the knowledge who can actually do that. You’ll start to see such integrations rolling out around our Aspect Unified IP product.”

100 Percent IP

Cistera Networks (News - Alert)’ Convergence Server enables customers to build a scalable environment that is flexible enough to adapt to their changing needs over time. The CCS platform scales up to support organizations with thousands of users and scales down for offices with fewer than 100, allowing it to fit into just about any kind of organization.

Cistera’s Greg Royal (News - Alert), CTO and EVP, says, “Our perspective differs a bit from the competition. We only deal with IP. We believe that IP is the future of world communications. We don’t support TDM-based systems. There are a number of philosophical reasons behind this. IP underpins all of modern communications capabilities that were formerly out of the reach of the average user. Many of the capabilities that large call centers and corporations have taken for granted are now beginning, because of IP, to seep down into the sub-25 seat contact center market. That’s because both the infrastructure required to run these systems, and the cost of implementing these systems over the years have been dramatically reduced, and the fundamental underpinning that we have in the IP communications market, specifically in contact center customer interaction, is that the whole business becomes a contact center. That sounds like a bit of a cliché, but the idea moving forward with IP communications is that if we can do interaction management on every level of an organization, then that’s a far more effective way of managing interaction capabilities and the customer’s experience.”

“We do IP contact centers and specifically work in the area of customer interactions – that’s what we call quality assurance and compliant systems, which is recording and monitoring of IP systems and IP devices that allows you to do quality metrics and quality reporting,” says Royal. “So if you have a particular requirement for the government or you’ve got to report back on third parties, etc., we can do that.”

“The example I give in the compliance area for contact systems is a customer called Credit Recovery,” says Royal. “They do customer-facing activities for banks, so if you’ve got a mortgage and you’re late with the payments, then somebody will call you up who is a third-party hired by the bank. The banks have a requirement in that they audit those interactions on an ad hoc and a semi-surreptitious basis through an access point that is remote to the actual call center itself. With our system, the bank can actually monitor the Call Center Representatives [CCRs] by dialing into the system via a secure IVR and actually do scorecards of both live conversations and recordings. So, the CCRs’ activities can be audited remotely, and independently of the internal mechanisms. That feature has been quite popular in both our financial services area and some ISVs run that because they provision third-party broadband and wireless capabilities which are branded for another company. The company that we’ve done our case study on in this area is Whiteport, based in Austin, Texas, which does white label broadband wireless for companies such as AT&T and McDonalds.”

In Unity There is Strength

Spanlink (News - Alert) Communications is a leading provider of unified communications and customer interaction solutions leveraging Cisco’s technology. Spanlink helps companies exploit the benefits of virtual UC networks for business transformation. Spanlink applies expert consulting, deployment, integration and managed services to tailor each customer’s solution and support plan to its business needs for transformational business improvements in productivity, efficiency and customer satisfaction. Spanlink is a Master certified Cisco partner serving mid-size businesses and large enterprises.

Brett Shockley (News - Alert), Spanlink’s CEO, says, “Spanlink jumped into the IP contact center arena in a big way in 2000. Cisco made a big investment in our company and we refocused all the company’s efforts into 2000 around the IP contact center. I was at Cisco (News - Alert) in 2000 and was running their contact center business. I came to Spanlink in 2002 and have been rapidly growing the business. The primary focus in that timeframe was entirely around IP contact centers. So we have very much have been on the forefront of this industry. We did early implementations of IP contact centers, both innovative and complex. We also created a number of software products for the IP contact center that we sell both directly to customers and OEM through companies such as Cisco. We have about 1,500 IP contact center sites deployed and they include some of the biggest and most well-known applications out there, such as Grainger [].”

“We also do a lot of work with international IP contact centers,” says Shockley. “With customers such as First American, we help them build some of their contact centers around the world. Even though we’re a Minnesota-based company, last year we did IP contact center deployments on five continents.”

“In October 2007 we spun off our Calabrio (News - Alert) Software division,” says Shockley. “Calabrio operates as a separate, independent company and focuses directly on the development and distribution of customer interaction and workforce optimization software for IP-based contact centers. The new company began with a presence on about 500,000 installed desktops maintains an OEM relationship with Cisco. Spanlink Communications itself remains focused on selling, delivering and supporting unified communications solutions. We’ve been broadening the scope of our business from just being narrowly focused on the IP contact center, to a wider base of unified communications. We view the two as being interrelated.”

“When I take a look at the big market picture,” says Shockley, “I’ve seen several trends unfold over the past six or seven years. The first one, of course, was the convergence of the data and voice networks, which led to cheap long distance and all of those good things. One of the next trends that we were very much at the forefront of in the contact center arena was business virtualization. We led the industry with customers such as Grainger [], which virtualized 500 of their store locations into a single virtual contact center, with thousands of agents across all of those sites. With Grainger we also pioneered a market-based routing algorithm which enables customers to call local resources and get local service even if the office handling the call is 30 miles away. Some companies may not realize that they have a true contact center until suddenly they’re using this technology to tie together many different sites and virtualize their business.”

“We see ourselves as stepping into the next arena,” says Shockley, “which is the unification of the applications. We work with many of our customers today and end up with an inseparable combination of convergence, virtualization and unification of applications. We often help companies figure out what the business value is of bringing all of these things together.”

“So those are the key areas,” says Shockley. “The last few weeks I was running around the country visiting about a dozen customers. I’m seeing the former early adopters of IP telephony and IP contact centers now saying, ‘Okay, that’s great, now what’s next?’. I also see the people who were somewhat later adopters and they’re saying, ‘I’m reading about all of this technology and I’m just getting ready to implement it, so how do I really bring all of this together? What is unified communications? What are IP contact centers? What’s the benefit over just upgrading what I have today?’ Interestingly, you end up with similar conversations with both groups of people. The difference is that one is a more ‘educated’ audience than the other, I guess. But both groups are asking about many of the same kinds of applications.”

“We’re dealing with a healthcare company that’s doing nationwide health insurance applications for Fortune 500 companies,” says Shockley. “They’re really interested in how they can combine the resources of their formal contact center with all of the informal experts that they’ve got around their enterprise. In the insurance industry you’ve got an issue with licensing requirements and you find yourself talking to your customers about various topics based on the state from which they’re calling. As soon as you start trying to build something that’s nationwide in scope, and competing with companies in that business occupying narrow geographies, you suddenly run into the funny issue of how to ensure that you are highly efficient in providing the basic bread-and-butter types of services to the customers calling in – or customers you are calling out to – and, secondly, how can you find the appropriately-licensed expert to talk to a customer or to provide advice relative to wherever the customer is calling from?”

“I ran into something similar in the mortgage title services industry,” says Shockley, “also serving customers nationwide and involving many regional experts. The company had to be able to handle regional licensing issues and appear to be ‘local’, which is not only informative but helps to establish a personal relationship with the customer.”

“So we’re starting to see more of these kinds of approaches. As soon as you adopt them in call centers, you begin to see more blended UC, and informal agents tied to formal contact center agents so you can call upon their expertise whenever necessary,” says Shockley.

Digging Deep for Data

Verint (News - Alert) Systems is a major provider of actionable intelligence solutions for workforce optimization, IP video, communications interception, and public safety. Their technology helps organizations make sense of the vast information they collect as part of their daily operations – for example, trends buried in millions of calls, threats hidden in billions of interactions. The Verint Enterprise Workforce Optimization Solutions thus enable organizations to capture and analyze customer interactions, improve workforce performance, and enhance service processes in contact center, branch, and back-office operations. These were developed in combination with the workforce optimization software provider Witness Systems (News - Alert) (which was acquired by Verint).

Verint has recognized the benefits of IP telephony and has leveraged this technology in IP Recording as part of their Impact 360 Suite. Beyond the advantages of cost saving by virtue of IP, Verint’s solution captures, indexes, and retrieves customer/caller interactions in traditional TDM, IP, and mixed telephony environments. Additionally, IP Recording is flexible in that it can be used with traditional contact centers as well as contact centers with remote or home-based agents, branch offices or distributed service centers. Furthermore, IP Recording through Verint’s Impact 360 software is compatible with VoIP systems such as Avaya, Cisco and Nortel (News - Alert). Full integration with a VoIP system and SIP-enable it to capture additional information, such as call date, duration, call ID, and more.:

Greg Sherry, Director of Marketing at Verint Systems, says, “Companies have started leveraging VoIP for business and workforce optimization and what they do also impacts and benefits customers. One of my favorite examples is a company in the Los Angeles area called LifeCare Assurance. They’ve been on Cisco IP since 2003. All of their 140 agents have been using VoIP. Basically they’re optimizing their company. It’s not a giant company – 140 seats is about average. The big mission-critical centers of 800 agents or so aren’t quite going 100 percent VoIP yet, though they’re piloting it more and more at the ancillary centers. But with LifeCare, it’s interesting that they’re optimizing all the people, not just the call agents. Two-thirds of the people being optimized are underwriters and outbound people at remote locations, so they’re distributed. There are about 40 or 50 people we’d typically refer to as call center agents, but the other 90 or 100 people, if they were at any other company and not on VoIP, they wouldn’t come under workforce or business optimization processes, because they couldn’t do it if they were on a traditional PBX (News - Alert) or a different kind of network.”

“VoIP is really making a difference now in helping customers in terms of ROI and platform and infrastructure perspectives,” says Sherry.

“There’s another example I can think of concerning a credit union that captures best practices and improves training,” says Sherry. “In another example, they use root cause analysis and business optimization. This technology is very real now. Companies are using IP contact centers for remote agents or individual agents that wouldn’t or couldn’t be in a traditional call center. With today’s technology they can be tied into the centers. Sometimes it’s not VoIP all the way. It could be VoIP as far as a TDM switch having a gateway. But even without a full VoIP infrastructure, if you need more agents, it’s possible to extend call center functionality to wherever the agents are – three in Idaho, two in Philadelphia and six in New Jersey, for example.”

“SIP, the Session Initiation Protocol, has become a tremendous aid in enabling agents to handle more types of interactions with customers,” says Sherry. “Agents using systems based on SIP and presence-based capabilities can talk with a customer, or use web chat, or pass it to some other media, or some outside expert, or consult with somebody via instant messaging. You haven’t seen wide use of this in the optimization space, but I would say that 10 percent of the early adopters are doing this cutting-edge stuff.”

So, within a short time it appears that we’ll all be official or unofficial members of our workplaces’ IP contact center. Practice your diction. IT

Richard Grigonis (News - Alert) is Executive Editor of TMC’s IP Communications Group.


The following companies were mentioned in this article:

Aspect Software (

Cistera Networks (

Interactive Intelligence (

Spanlink Communications (

Verint Systems (


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